Friday, November 26, 2010

Weekend Reading: In Cheap We Trust

In Cheap We Trust: The story of a Misunderstood American Virtue by Lauren Weber. Back Bay Books, October 2010.

I've already mentioned this book once, but I could write an entire series dissecting why this is a fantastic analysis of the American character in relation to money. I realize that that sentence doesn't make it sound very appealing, but it's seriously fascinating. Just taking a cursory view of American history, we shifted from Puritain values of thrift to wartime rationing, to the roaring twenties to the great depression. We always seem to know that we're supposed to be saving, but easy credit gets the best of us each time. When it's all written down like this, it's both horrifying a fascinating how we as a nation keep making the same mistakes in a slightly new way. It certainly re-validates my personal desire to be thrifty and remain that way, but even I have only come to this conclusion after falling victim to the same ideas that always bring us down.

Best Takeaways:

A new appreciation for Home Economics class
Actually, I should amend that to an appreciation for Home Economics class, because it was a joke to me before. In my school, Home Ec was for the lazy, for the kids that were scared of the shop teacher and for the kids that knew taking shop meant doing a little bit of math. We did the lessons in cooking and sewing, but we also had a Mary Kay beauty consultant come in twice, which seriously undermined any actual lessons we were supposed to be learning. Prior to reading this book, I had never even really considered the name Home Economics and what it actually means. Basically, the men went off to earn the money, and it fell to the women to run the home as efficiently as possible. This means knowing how to get a good price on food, how to prepare it, how to sew and mend clothes--basically all of the things that I'm trying to reach myself at age 31 and lamenting that I didn't know before.

My Home Ec class has changed its name to Family and Consumer Sciences, but still didn't really tell the students that even if you're not going to be a housewife, you will still run a house someday. There is a huge opportunity to teach high school students practical skills that they will actually need someday, but that message doesn't seem to get through. If anyone else has had a better Home Ec experience, I'd love to hear it, otherwise, I feel like I might end up lobbying my way into local schools to save today's youth from themselves!

The notion of the good life has been pervasive in our history.
We have always had the ideal of The American Dream, but we've always let the haves dictate history more than the have nots. "Despite the flashy 1920s images of Gatsby et al., many Americans still lived in poverty having missed out of the decade's gains. In 1929 The Brookings Institution reported that 60 percent of Americans lived on less than $2000 per year, barely able to provide for basic necessities, yet they were inundated with images of the good life." (148). Sure history is written by the victors, but why do we always celebrate extravagance and waste more than we do hard work and practicality. It's sexier, I suppose, but again, it's this whole cyclical notion of thinking that becomes really apparent when you just focus on our nation's history with money.

The Tightwad-Spendthrift scale.
Carnegie Mellon did a survey of consumer behavior (which you can take, if you like) that indicated that people who fall into the category of tightwad actually have a physical reaction to spending money i.e. it's not always just cheapness, for these people, it's actually difficult to spend. Likewise, the spendthrifts have a hard time not spending money, even if it's money they don't have. Personally, I've gone through phases of both, and it depends on what I'm buying. Sometimes I wake up knowing I need to buy milk, but just not wanting to. Sometimes I wake up knowing that I don't need a new black cardigan, but it's all I can think about. I go back and forth and I think I fall more into the middle area of unconflicted consumer.

I'm sure we've all seen, just in observing human behavior, that all of us spend in different ways, but it's interesting to learn the though process (or automatic attitude) that goes into buying things.


  1. In high school (ninth grade?) we were required to take a semester of home ec (half cooking, half sewing), and a semester of shop (half drafting, half woodwork). I liked taking both classes, and I thought the stuff we went over was important to know (although I have a bad habit of thinking almost everything is important to know), but no one ever said, "This is important to know because you are going to need this for when you are an adult and on your own."--that concept specifically did not occur to me. I liked it because I was already that kind of a domestically-minded person, not because I thought, "Hey, I'm going to have to know how to plan meals, cook, do laundry, and run a household someday."

    Besides the required home ec class, where we got to cook (and sew), there were other optional home ec/family and consumer sciences classes that were book-and-paperwork only, such as Independent Living, which I didn't take, but which I realize now should have been mandatory--I heard they learned how to do budgets(!) and other useful household-running things like that.

    I'm all about the home ec and I think it doesn't get enough attention. Your personal-experience approach to your financial blog here actually inspired me to start a home ec blog; I've only put up two posts so far in the month since it's been up (I'm so slow--how do you do it?) but I have lots of ideas.

  2. PS. Have you seen 1940s House? That's my favorite of all the House projects. It's one of the British ones (always better than the American ones--the Americans cheat!) and it follows one family who has to try to live as though they are going through WWII. The rationing really gets to them. Every week when they go back to the store where they buy their 1940s goods there's less and less things for them to even purchase on their limited budget. They can only have so much flour and eggs and sugar and they have to make everything last as long as possible.

  3. I love 1940s house! I've watched that one twice and want to watch it again. I think about it all the time too, the way that the women couldn't cook at all, but were forced to learn under the worst circumstances using fewer and fewer ingredients. I don't know if I would have been able to do it.

  4. Also, I'm so glad I inspired you!!! Whoo hoo!! I can't wait to read yours :)